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Johnny LaRue's Crane Shot
Sunday, September 4, 2005
Picture, 1000 Words & All That
Here's what New Orleans looked like on Tuesday:

Here's what President George W. Bush was doing on Tuesday:

That's right, he was 1500 miles away in San Diego. Looks like he's having a pretty fucking good time, doesn't he? I bet he's having more fun than this guy is.

If you're wondering exactly what Bush-buddy Michael Brown, the head of FEMA, did right before he was appointed to his current post, he was getting fired from his last job--running horse shows. That's right--he was too much of a fuck-up to organize horse shows, but perfect material to organize rescue operations.

Another great indication of how badly the Bush administration has bungled this is that even his toadies in the mass media are--slowly--starting to turn on him. Even Bill O'Reilly and Rupert Murdoch's New York Post have offered half-hearted criticisms. You can read a few of them here (this one includes a rip by the very Bush-friendly Washington Times and here, where we find out just how clueless the politicians in charge actually are.

To be fair, Bush isn't the only fuck-up here. Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco was too slow to order the National Guard in to help keep the peace, and then ordered police officers to “shoot and kill” anyone they saw looting. New Orleans Ray Nagin’s evacuation procedures were pitiful. And the rest of the state government had no trouble organizing a special election to pass an amendment banning gay marriage--surely a much less important issue than strengthening the levees. The current levees were built to withstand a Category 3 storm, but not a Category 4, which is how Katrina was classified. And when Bush says, as I quoted in a previous post, that nobody could have predicted that the levees would collapse, when in fact it has been well-documented that they would collapse under Katrina-like conditions, that is cluelessness of the highest order, even by his standards.

Posted by Marty at 11:16 AM CDT
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Saturday, September 3, 2005
Same Old Lies, Same Old Incompetence
I've been spending way too much time following the various news stories about Katrina and its aftermath. What shocks me more than anything is the Bush administration's callous disregard for human life and its inept handling of the entire situation. If I performed my job as poorly as Bush and his cronies have this week, I wouldn't expect to be allowed to return on Tuesday morning. But when you listen to these people talk and the insensitivity that comes out of their mouths...

First Lady Laura Bush says, when asked about the large majority of poor and black people left behind in New Orleans, ""This is what happens when there's a natural disaster of this scope. The poorer people are usually in the neighborhoods that are the lowest or the most exposed or the most vulnerable. Their housing is the most vulnerable to natural disaster. And that is just always what happens."

Hey, fuck 'em, right, Laura? Stuff happens. That's what Donald Rumsfeld's response was to criticisms that he failed to provide U.S. soldiers in Iraq with adequate equipment and armor. Yeah, right, stuff happens.

President Bush says, "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job. The FEMA Director is working 24 -- they're working 24 hours a day."

Fuck you, George. "Brownie" is in fact doing a shitty job. Anyone who thinks that "Brownie", aka Michael Brown, the Bush-appointed head of FEMA, is doing a good job this week is lying his ass off or is a goddamn idiot. When Bill Clinton was in the White House, FEMA was considered to be something of an important organization, as it should be, and its head, James Witt, was a member of his Cabinet. When Bush stole the election from Al Gore in 2000, he downgraded FEMA, folding it into the Department of Homeland Security, and gave Witt's job to Joe Allbaugh, Bush's former Chief of Staff and campaign manager and a man with zero experience in handling major disasters. Allbaugh is also the guy who helped Bush get his Texas National Guard records erased, so he's clearly someone Bush owes big time. Allbaugh resigned amid scandal, and Bush replaced him with Brown, a lawyer and another personal friend of the President's with zero experience in doing what FEMA was created for. Bush clearly used the FEMA position as an opportunity to extend favors to his drinking buddies. He certainly didn't take it seriously, as his many budget cuts will attest.

Bush says, "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees." This is a gigantic lie. According to this Reuters story, "Virtually everything that has happened in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina struck was predicted by experts and in computer models, so emergency management specialists wonder why authorities were so unprepared."

Bush, who believes that scientific facts like global warming and evolution are merely rumors, continues to prove how out-of-touch he is by saying, "There ought to be zero tolerance of people breaking the law during an emergency such as this." This is, of course, idiotic. Many of those people were, in fact, stealing food, water and medicine, and the reason they were is because Bush wasn't giving it to them. Zero tolerance is just another phrase for "zero thinking". Zero tolerance is always an idiotic way to do anything. There are many different kinds of looters. Some are families besieged by hunger and dehydration and are looting to survive. What are they supposed to do? Stand in front of a rack of Little Debbie snack cakes and not eat them? Many of the looters are, indeed, bad guys. They're robbing other refugees of their clothing and shoes. They're committing violence against their fellow victims. They're raping and beating and killing. Setting aside the likelihood that looting would not have occurred at this level if Bush had been doing his job to begin with, lumping all looters together into one bundle is stupid and dangerous. There are Bad Looters and Not-So-Bad Looters (these are the dumbasses stealing TV sets, I don't why) and Looters Who Are Just Trying Not To Die.

And then you read this transcript of Michael Brown's press conference where he claims that security in New Orleans is "pretty darn good", that he knows nothing about any corpses lying in the street, that if there were bodies lying in the street, they would "not necessarily" cause disease (these must be very clean cadavers), that he has heard "no reports of unrest". What the hell has this guy been doing? All he has to do is turn on a TV set to see shitty security, rotting corpses, and a hell of a lot of social unrest. Unbelievable.

So much could have been prevented. Those of us who voted for Al Gore in 2000 and for John Kerry in 2004 knew this could happen. We knew that Bush was incompetent. We knew about his disregard for the lives of Americans. We knew that he was stupid and greedy and foolish. Yet so many chose not to listen. Even after he squandered the largest U.S. surplus in history. Even after he lied his ass off and sent nearly 2000 Americans (and counting) to fight an unnecessary war in Iraq, a war against an admittedly brutal dictator who posed no threat to American soil. Even after he schemed to prevent less expensive medicines from being available to poor Americans desperately in need of adequate health care. Even after he sided with credit card companies to screw more money out of the citizens he took an oath to protect. People still voted for him. They said, "He's the best man for the job. He will keep me safe."

Look around the ruins of New Orleans. Ask yourself, "Did George Bush do everything he possibly could to keep those people safe?"

Posted by Marty at 6:06 PM CDT
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Are You Enraged?
I went out with some co-workers last night, and even though I managed to eke out something resembling a good time, I was distracted the entire time. Same with work yesterday. I didn't get anything done. All I could do was surf various news Web sites, reading about what's happening in New Orleans. And then I would have to stop for awhile, because I would become too angry. It made me physically ill to read about the thousands of people who are either wandering around in confusion or trapped inside "safe havens" like the Superdome. Today I read about the children who were raped and murdered this week right under the noses of thousands of refugees in the Superdome. How they still, six days later, have no food and no water. How the U.S. government is keeping them trapped inside, refusing to allow anyone to leave. Anyone who wants to escape the rape and the killing and the abuse and the indignity and health hazard of lying in their own excrement is unable to. They're forced to remain at gunpoint.

You want to know how bad it is down there? So bad that even Fox News appears to be covering the events in a fair and balanced manner for once. Crooks and Liars has this amazing footage of Shepard Smith and Geraldo Rivera trying to break through Sean Hannity's thick head and explain to him the gross situation in New Orleans. Hannity, who looks as though he could care less, keeps trying to move the conversation back to GOP talking points, but, to their credit, Smith and Rivera refuse to budge. Television journalism has never been worse than it is right now, but seeing Smith and Rivera stand up and tell it like it really is, not how Fox News wants it to be, makes me believe that perhaps the news business can be saved. I don't doubt that both correspondents will have some nasty memos waiting for them when this crisis is over--nobody criticizes the Bush administration, directly or indirectly, on Fox News and walks away unscathed (after another Fox News pundit criticized Bush's reluctance to cut short his vacation, GOP toadie Brit Hume changed the subject)--but these guys have earned my respect today. Heck, I'm still trying to figure out how these guys and their satellite trucks were able to get through to the "frontlines", while government rescue units have not.

If there's any silver lining in all this, it is that it should sound the death knell for the Republicans' dominance of Washington politics. For too long, the Republican-dominated Congress and the Bush White House have fucked over innocent, decent Americans who just want to live their private lives knowing that, if something of a catastrophic nature occurs, the federal government--whose only job is to protect its citizenry--has their backs. George Bush does not have anyone's back but his own and those of his cronies. If there's anybody who can list three things that Bush has done during his presidency to improve the quality of life for lower- and middle-class Americans, I'd like to hear them. He certainly has done a lot to worsen life--siding with credit card companies and made it more difficult for people to declare bankruptcy, refuse to better the health care system, plunge the national deficit to a new low, not to mention sending billions of dollars and thousands of Americans overseas to fight a war that was unnecessary and unwanted.

Believe this--much of the death and destruction we have seen in New Orleans could have been avoided if the Bush administration and his cronies had not spent the last five years with their heads up their asses. For one thing, the head of FEMA, under Clinton, was a Cabinet-level position. When Bush took office, he removed that position from his Cabinet. In fact, he removed several well-qualified high-level FEMA employees and replaced them with buddies of his who were not qualified. Then, when he established the Department of Homeland Security (yeah, New Orleans was real secure), he foolishly folded FEMA into it while cutting FEMA's budget drastically.

Something else you should know--we knew this would happen. Everything that has occured as a result of Katrina was known in advance by scientists who ran practice drills and full-scale simulations and laid out very specific measures that needed to be taken in case a storm hit New Orleans. They predicted exactly would happen in the case of a disaster like Katrina. But what did our government do to prepare? Nothing. Both FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers were stricken with massive budget cuts that left them without the ability to do their jobs. And now thousands in Louisiana are paying the price.

This is a disaster that we knew what was coming. Ask yourself what would have happened if a terrorist attack like 9/11 had occurred in New Orleans? Things down there would be a LOT worse than they are. Do you feel safer now than you did before 9/11/01? Bullshit, I sure don't. Do you believe that the terrorists overseas are too afraid of George Bush to launch another 9/11 attack? Those fuckers can get CNN. They are watching and taking careful study of how incompetently the U.S. government is handling the New Orleans situation. They know that Bush and his cronies of old, angry, white men in Washington were and are ill-prepared to handle a national emergency of this magnitude. Four years after a similar catastrophe struck New York City, and emergency procedures have not improved. Indeed, they appear to be worse. And it won't be lost on our dark-skinned enemies in the Middle East that a great majority of those who are suffering are dark-skinned themselves.

Posted by Marty at 10:49 AM CDT
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Tuesday, August 30, 2005
I'm Not Gonna Box You. I'm Gonna Whup You.
Now Playing: SAW
Here's another reason why comics today suck. No company today would even attempt to publish a 72-page tabloid-sized comic with cardboard covers that pitted the Man of Steel against the most popular and most powerful fighter in the world.

SUPERMAN VS. MUHAMMAD ALI (technically ALL-NEW COLLECTORS' EDITION #C-56) is one of my favorite comics. It was written and drawn by Neal Adams, one of the industry's leaders and an artist whose impact on comics cannot be overestimated. From the time he began working on DC Comics covers in the mid-1960's, establishing an exciting new trend in "realism", comics were never the same. The work he did with writer Denny O'Neil on DC's GREEN LANTERN/GREEN ARROW title, which brought relevance and a new level of maturity to a medium best known as kids stuff, remains some of the most important comics ever created.

By the late 1970's, Adams was no longer regularly employed by DC or Marvel, having started his own stable of artists and branched off into other media, such as film posters and stage productions. He began as an advertising artist and moved into comic strips like BEN CASEY before his comic-book career, so comic books were not the be-all and end-all for Adams.

Pitting Superman and Ali against each other sounds like a no-brainer, but it took Adams, O'Neil (who began writing the project, but dropped out partway through) and editor Julius Schwartz to make it happen. The premise is terrific: a group of aliens invade Earth and demand that our greatest fighting champion take on theirs with the planet's future as the prize. Neither Superman nor Muhammad Ali can decide which of them is the world's biggest champion, so the aliens beam them both to a planet that revolves around a red sun (which saps Superman's powers) to duke it out for the Earth title. Ali ends up kicking Supes' ass, but the Man of Steel gets his powers back and opens a couple of cans of whupass on the invading aliens.

Adams told COMIC BOOK ARTIST that SUPERMAN VS. MUHAMMAD ALI is the best story he ever did. It's certainly one of his most fun, taking two of our greatest heroes and teaming them up on an extraterrestrial adventure with no less than the entire Planet Earth as the stakes. The comic is also notable for its wraparound cover, which includes hundreds of familiar and not-so-familiar faces in the crowd watching the fight. Everyone from fellow DC staff to big names like John Wayne and Johnny Carson are on the cover. One problem that arose is that Adams drew the cover without clearing the rights to use the likenesses. It was a chore for DC's legal department to track down and receive permission from all those celebrities. Most of them were cool, but you'll notice a guy with a mustache sitting next to Ron Howard. That was originally Henry Winkler, but the Fonz refused to give permission, and the likeness was altered.

Posted by Marty at 10:32 PM CDT
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Monday, August 29, 2005
The Big Bust-Out
I don't know why it took the networks almost five years to rip off 24, but Fox finally did it with the new series PRISON BREAK, which debuted tonight with back-to-back episodes. I think the network might have another winner on its hands.

Like 24, PRISON BREAK is a serialized action series that derives its suspense from a ticking clock. Lincoln Burrows (JOHN DOE's Dominic Purcell) was accused, arrested and found guilty of shooting the brother of the Vice-President of the United States. He currently resides in a maximum-security federal penitentiary in Joliet, Illinois, where he's scheduled to be executed in 30 days. His brother Michael (Wentworth Miller) believes Lincoln to be innocent, and concocts an elaborate plan to rescue him. He sticks up a bank and ensures he'll be sent to the same Joliet facility. It turns out that Michael, a structural engineer, has had the prison's blueprints, along with several other cheats and hints, hidden inside an intricate tattoo that stretches all over his arms and torso.

Creator and writer Paul Scheuring (A MAN APART) opens up a number of subplots that may ensure the series as the season's most dense. A warden (Stacy Keach) who's building a wooden replica of the Taj Mahal as a 40th anniversary present for his wife, a mobster (Peter Stormare from FARGO) with connections, a rapist named T-Bag (Robert Knepper), an old con who may or may not be D.B. Cooper (Muse Watson) and a pissed off guard (Wade Williams) are already making trouble for Michael inside the prison. Outside, his attorney (Robin Tunney) is beginning to believe that Lincoln's incarceration may be the result of a government conspiracy spearheaded by a Secret Service agent (Paul Adelstein) and a mysterious woman in Montana.

Whew. That's a lot of characters and a lot of tantalizing plot threads dangling. If Scheuring and his writing staff can keep all their plates on the end of their sticks, it'll be a miracle, but what I've seen so far is enough to lure me back next week. Film director Brett Ratner (RUSH HOUR), also an executive producer, and Michael Watkins directed the first two episodes, and the battery of credited producers have credits on shows like BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, THE GUARDIAN and NYPD BLUE.

But it's the cast that makes this series so far. I believe that at least 75% of any successful TV series is casting, and Fox got it right with this talented bunch, led by Miller (UNDERWORLD), who I've never seen before, but is on a starmaking path as the determined, tough and wry guy on a mission. I thought Purcell was a solid lead on JOHN DOE, and Keach, Stormare, Adelstein and Tunney all have solid credentials. The show's premise is, of course, incredible, but if these actors can make the implausible seem plausible, that might be all the show needs to make it a winner.

Posted by Marty at 10:12 PM CDT
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Sunday, August 28, 2005
The Student Body Always Scores
Ended up spending yesterday with a friend who came to town to visit his dad in the hospital. He crashed at my place, so we stayed up late watching four (!) deliciously crappy movies. One of them was 1974's SUMMER SCHOOL TEACHERS, a New World release executive-produced by Roger Corman and produced by his wife Julie. The writer and director was Barbara Peeters. It was even more rare then than it is today to find woman directors in Hollywood, and virtually none of them were making exploitation films. Peeters and Stephanie Rothman, who briefly co-owned her own independent studio, Dimension Pictures, were about the only ones.

Following in the footsteps of New World hits like THE STUDENT TEACHERS and CANDY STRIPE NURSES came this interesting feminist tract disguised as a T&A film. Three Midwestern farmgirls move to Los Angeles to teach high school and maybe find love in the process. Blond Conklin T. (the wonderful Candice Rialson) teaches girls' P.E. and tries to organize an all-female football team, much to the consternation of male chauvinist athletic director Sam (badass Dick Miller, who later appeared with Rialson in HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD). Science teacher Denise (cute Rhonda Leigh Hopkins) falls for a teenage hood who gets kidnapped by a car theft gang, while Sally (Pat Anderson) teaches photography and poses for some sexy shots of her own.

Typically for these New World formula films, SUMMER SCHOOL TEACHERS fulfills the requirements of an exploitation movie with copious nudity and slapstick humor, but also contains serious subtext. SUMMER SCHOOL TEACHERS is deep down a feminist treatise on women's liberation and empowerment in which, yep, the girls get naked, but only on their own terms for their own pleasure. Conklin and Company are the smartest characters in the movie, and use both their brains and bodies to break down "the Man's" rule.

I'm not advocating SUMMER SCHOOL TEACHERS as any kind of classic, but it's much more ambitious than those who turn down their noses at drive-in flicks would be willing to admit.

Peeters' last film for Corman was 1980's HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP, which was apparently quite a personal setback for her. The story is that Corman hired a second director to go back and film gore and nude scenes against Peeters' wishes and inserted them into the film. It's actually a good movie, a throwback to '50s sci-fi, as Doug McClure, Ann Turkel and Vic Morrow battle an army of slimy amphibians that invade a small town and rape their women. The sleazier material, like one monster ripping apart a tent and having its way with a buxom nude girl, was never filmed by Peeters, but Corman felt it was necessary for audiences anticipating that type of film from New World. And he was probably right.

Posted by Marty at 10:35 AM CDT
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Friday, August 26, 2005
Who Ya Gonna Call?
Here's a silly change of pace. This is a list of the Top 100 pop songs in the U.S. the year I graduated from high school, 1984. There are a lot of bad songs on this list, yet who would argue that 2005 is a better year for pop?

1. When Doves Cry, Prince
2. What's Love Got To Do With It, Tina Turner
3. Say Say Say, Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson
4. Footloose, Kenny Loggins
5. Against All Odds (Take A Look At Me Now), Phil Collins
6. Jump, Van Halen
7. Hello, Lionel Richie
8. Owner Of A Lonely Heart, Yes
9. Ghostbusters, Ray Parker Jr.
10. Karma Chameleon, Culture Club
11. Missing You, John Waite
12. All Night Long (All Night), Lionel Richie
13. Let's Hear It For The Boy, Deniece Williams
14. Dancing In The Dark, Bruce Springsteen
15. Girls Just Want To Have Fun, Cyndi Lauper
16. The Reflex, Duran Duran
17. Time After Time, Cyndi Lauper
18. Jump (For My Love), Pointer Sisters
19. Talking In Your Sleep, Romantics
20. Self Control, Laura Branigan
21. Let's Go Crazy, Prince and The Revolution
22. Say It Isn't So, Daryl Hall and John Oates
23. Hold Me Now, Thompson Twins
24. Joanna, Kool and The Gang
25. I Just Called To Say I Love You, Stevie Wonder
26. Somebody's Watching Me, Rockwell
27. Break My Stride, Matthew Wilder
28. 99 Luftballons, Nena
29. I Can Dream About You, Dan Hartman
30. The Glamorous Life, Sheila E.
31. Oh Sherrie, Steve Perry
32. Stuck On You, Lionel Richie
33. I Guess That's Why They Call It The Blues, Elton John
34. She Bop, Cyndi Lauper
35. Borderline, Madonna
36. Sunglasses At Night, Corey Hart
37. Eyes Without A Face, Billy Idol
38. Here Comes The Rain Again, Eurythmics
39. Uptown Girl, Billy Joel
40. Sister Christian, Night Ranger
41. Drive, Cars
42. Twist Of Fate, Olivia Newton-John
43. Union Of The Snake, Duran Duran
44. The Heart Of Rock 'N' Roll, Huey Lewis and The News
45. Hard Habit To Break, Chicago
46. The Warrior, Scandal
47. If Ever You're In My Arms Again, Peabo Bryson
48. Automatic, Pointer Sisters
49. Let The Music Play, Shannon
50. To All The Girls I've Loved Before, Julio Iglesias and Willie Nelson
51. Caribbean Queen, Billy Ocean
52. That's All, Genesis
53. Running With The Night, Lionel Richie
54. Sad Songs (Say So Much), Elton John
55. I Want A New Drug, Huey Lewis and The News
56. Islands In The Stream, Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton
57. Love Is A Battlefield, Pat Benatar
58. Infatuation, Rod Stewart
59. Almost Paradise, Mike Reno and Ann Wilson
60. Legs, ZZ Top
61. State Of Shock, Jacksons
62. Love Somebody, Rick Springfield
63. Miss Me Blind, Culture Club
64. If This Is It, Huey Lewis and The News
65. You Might Think, Cars
66. Lucky Star, Madonna
67. Cover Me, Bruce Springsteen
68. Cum On Feel The Noize, Quiet Riot
69. Breakdance, Irene Cara
70. Adult Education, Daryl Hall and John Oates
71. They Don't Know, Tracy Ullman
72. An Innocent Man, Billy Joel
73. Cruel Summer, Bananarama
74. Dance Hall Days, Wang Chung
75. Give It Up, K.C.
76. I'm So Excited, Pointer Sisters
77. I Still Can't Get Over Loving You, Ray Parker Jr.
78. Thriller, Michael Jackson
79. Holiday, Madonna
80. Breakin'... There's No Stopping Us, Ollie And Jerry
81. Nobody Told Me, John Lennon
82. Church Of The Poison Mind, Culture Club
83. Think Of Laura, Christopher Cross
84. Time Will Reveal, Debarge
85. Wrapped Around Your Finger, Police
86. Pink Houses, John Cougar Mellencamp
87. Round And Round, Ratt
88. Head Over Heels, Go-Go's
89. The Longest Time, Billy Joel
90. Tonight, Kool and The Gang
91. Got A Hold On Me, Christine McVie
92. Dancing In The Sheets, Shalamar
93. Undercover Of The Night, Rolling Stones
94. On The Dark Side, John Cafferty and The Beaver Brown Band
95. New Moon On Monday, Duran Duran
96. Major Tom (Coming Home), Peter Schilling
97. Magic, Cars
98. When You Close Your Eyes, Night Ranger
99. Rock Me Tonite, Billy Squier
100. Yah Mo B There, James Ingram and Michael McDonald

The shittiest song on that list has to be "State of Shock", which was on a Jacksons album, but is really a "duet" between Michael Jackson and Mick Jagger. I doubt the two were ever within 1500 miles of each other. I'm a Jagger fan, but, holy crap, this song sucks. Come to think of it, so does that other Michael Jackson duet, "Say Say Say", which was on Paul McCartney's PIPES OF PEACE LP. At least it's catchy and amiable. The one thing I remember about Michael Jackson back then is getting in arguments with people who swore up and down that he wasn't gay. I don't think anybody today would be so certain of Michael's heterosexuality, but I remember seeing this guy romping with Paul in that "Say Say Say" video...remember when Paul plops a playful smoodge of shaving cream on Michael's face? Michael reacts in a manner that makes Jm J. Bullock look like Victor Mature on Viagra.

I was not really into contemporary pop music then, although I listened to a lot of it on WLRW, and I still have some of these original 45s that I bought at one of Market Place Mall's two record stores. I was mostly listening to "oldies"--Beatles, Beach Boys, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Stones. Also a lot of movie soundtracks; THE ROAD WARRIOR was a big favorite...STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE, STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN, CAPRICORN ONE, STAR WARS, BLUE THUNDER. Yeah, I was real popular with the ladies.

I'd say there're probably 15-20 songs on that list that I don't even recognize. And that's after years of working as a radio disc jockey. Who the fuck are Ollie & Jerry?

Posted by Marty at 11:30 PM CDT
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Wednesday, August 24, 2005
This Tape Will Self-Destruct In Five Seconds

Why hasn't Paramount released any MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE episodes on DVD yet? Don't they like money?

If you only know MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE through the two Tom Cruise movies, you're probably asking, "Who gives a shit? MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE sucks." And it's true--the movies do suck, and they have nothing to do with MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE. The first film at least borrowed Lalo Schifrin's famous theme and a few other gimmicks, but pretty much ignored everything that was unique and exciting about the television series. The exception is the bravura sequence in which Cruise dangles upside down in a top-secret computer lab to steal some data. Director Brian DePalma wisely played it without music or dialogue, and it's a wonderful piece of thriller filmmaking. It's too bad he didn't--or couldn't (he reportedly butted heads with his boss, producer Cruise, on several occasions)--do more of it. The sequel, directed by John Woo, is a piece of shit, one of the dullest craptaculars I've seen in a long time. And it has even less to do with the TV series than the first film.

No, if you haven't seen the TV show, you're missing one of the medium's great adventures.

M:I aired on CBS from 1966-1973, a healthy seven-season run. It originally starred Steven Hill as Dan Briggs, the head of the Impossible Missions Force, a government group that engaged in espionage of the highest priority. Their missions were so dangerous that they were warned before each one that if any of them were killed or captured, "the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions."

Hill was an intense, intelligent and extremely skilled stage actor who was a favorite of M:I creator Bruce Geller, though not of CBS. Hill also turned out to be troublesome and difficult, and was dumped after one season. You undoubtedly know him from his long association with LAW & ORDER, where he played curmudgeonly District Attorney Adam Schiff for more than a decade.

Geller replaced Hill with Peter Graves, a rugged, handsome, dependable leading man who had bounced around Hollywood for a decade and a half. Despite a memorable role in Billy Wilder's STALAG 17, he was probably best known as the star of several 1950's science fiction movies, including Roger Corman's memorable IT CONQUERED THE WORLD, Bert I. Gordon's schlocky BEGINNING OF THE END about giant cockroaches, and KILLERS FROM SPACE, directed by Billy's less-talented brother W. Lee Wilder.

Graves became M:I's most prominent icon, so much so that hardly anyone remembers anymore that Hill was ever on the show. He went on to do a memorable role in AIRPLANE and to host A&E's BIOGRAPHY, but it will be MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE leading his obituary when he one day passes on.

Graves played Jim Phelps, the IMF mastermind who thought up each episode's intricate mission. Also starring were Martin Landau, still a busy character actor who won an Oscar for playing Bela Lugosi in ED WOOD, as Rollin Hand, a magician and master of disguise; Landau's wife Barbara Bain, a University of Illinois graduate, as model Cinnamon Carter; Greg Morris as Barney, a brilliant electronics and explosives expert during an era when blacks were still rarely shown as intelligent; and Indianapolis' Peter Lupus as Willy, a strongman.

Each episode found the M:I gang perpetrating an outlandishly complex caper or con job on an unsuspecting mobster, killer or foreign dictator. In the early years, the series mainly concentrated on overseas espionage, and part of the fun was learning what made-up Communist country was the setting each week. The show never had Soviet or Red Chinese or Cuban villains; they were always from a spot on the globe entirely invented by MISSION's writers, with a language to match. It couldn't be English, but it had to be recognizable to American viewers, so you always saw signs that read "gaz" for gasoline or "verbaton" for Do Not Enter or something like that. The series eventually moved away from international missions to battling organized crime in America, which was probably cheaper, since the show shot everything in Southern California. MISSION had the run of the Paramount backlot, which had jungles, castles, cathedrals, prison camps...anyplace an international crime-fighting unit might need to go. It also gave the cast a chance to speak in silly accents. Hearing Peter Lupus speak English with a Czech accent is one of TV's great unsung pleasures.

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE was, and remains, one of television's best-written shows. The plots were so intricate that they had to be virtually airtight to be believable. They were often outlandish and sometimes relied on a handy deux es machina, but the shows were so slick and polished that you could usually buy whatever craziness the writers dished out.

For example, in "The Photographer", the M:I gang had to retrieve a secret code being transmitted by an American fashion photographer and traitor (Anthony Zerbe) to his Commie bosses from his underground bomb shelter. To do so, Phelps concocted an audacious plan to convince Zerbe that nuclear missiles had bombed the U.S. and that World War III was underway. So the good guys substituted Zerbe's bullets for paintballs, faked their own deaths, fed him faked radio broadcasts, and even built a miniature 360-degree diorama and slipped it around his periscope, so when Zerbe peeked topside, all he saw was burned-out scenery.

In another episode, the M:I group kidnapped gangster William Shatner, gave him "temporary" plastic surgery to make him look 30 years younger, and built a ten-square-block replica of the neighborhood he lived in as a child. It was all to get him to lead them to a hiding place, and the plan was that, when he woke up, he'd be convinced the last 30 years were just a dream. Yeah, it's ridiculous, but you either go with the flow or you don't, and by the time that episode aired, M:I had already done about 150 of them, and viewers were willing to cut them some slack. The most complex episode, "The Mind of Stefan Miklos", was perhaps too complicated, even for the sophisticated MISSION audience. A recent article in the NEW YORK TIMES suggested that today's TV shows and audiences are smarter than they've ever been. Anyone who has ever watched both MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE and FEAR FACTOR knows that's complete idiocy.

Landau and Bain left the series after a salary dispute and several Emmy nominations (Bain won three in a row). Their replacement was Leonard Nimoy, who, months earlier, had completed a three-year run as Mr. Spock on STAR TREK just a couple of stages over on the Paramount lot. Nimoy played nimble-fingered makeup expert Paris for a couple of years. Also popping up as regulars for a year or two were Lesley Ann Warren, Lynda Day George, Barbara Anderson and Sam Elliott, mustacheless as a doctor named Doug. The show also managed to attract nearly every major TV actor of the era as guest stars, including Robert Conrad, Pernell Roberts, William Shatner, Robert Reed, Joan Collins, Arthur Hill, Edward Asner, Darren McGavin, Martin Sheen and so many others. Hell, I know Monte Markham must have been on at least once.

It's amazing that M:I lasted as long as it did, even though the ratings were very high. It was a very expensive show to do, since so much of it was set outdoors and in different locations. There was only one permanent set--Phelps' apartment, where Jim laid out the mission each week. It was also heavily quoted, parodied and paid homage to everywhere from GET SMART to MAD magazine. The opening tape scenes, where Graves received his mission in spoken-word form each week, spawned such catchphrases as "Your mission, should you choose to accept it..." and "This recording will self-destruct in ten seconds." Even those who never saw M:I will likely recognize these lines.

In addition to its actors, the individual most closely identified with M:I must be Lalo Schifrin, the Argentine-born jazz composer who wrote the opening theme, one of TV's most memorable. Penned in a wonky 5/4 time signature, it was intended by Schifrin to be part of the pilot's underscore, but Geller loved it so much that he made it the series' theme. Again, even those who don't know where the music is from certainly recognize the piece when they hear it. It kicks off each episode with a feeling of urgency and excitement in a way that today's TV dramas, which typically flash dozens of names over scenes instead of using a title sequence.

The bad news is that Cruise is hard at work on MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III, a sequel that absolutely nobody wants to see. Ask yourself this: have you ever heard anybody say, "Those MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE movies really kick ass"?

The good news, potentially, is that Paramount will use the tie-in opportunity as a reason to release the M:I TV show on DVD. Chances are they'll skip the Graves-less first season and begin with Season Two. I can live with that, as long as I can start building a MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE DVD collection as soon as possible.

Posted by Marty at 11:27 PM CDT
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Monday, August 22, 2005
James Booth, R.I.P.
Now Playing: DEEP SPACE
Actor James Booth has passed away in Essex at age 77. Booth was an extremely distinguished British actor with roles on stage and in major films like ZULU and THE JAZZ SINGER. So distinguished, in fact, that it's difficult to imagine such a man also being a screenwriter of Michael Dudikoff movies, but he was. Two of Dudikoff's best films for Cannon, AVENGING FORCE and AMERICAN NINJA 2: THE CONFRONTATION, were penned by Booth, who also played Dudikoff's suspicious CIA contact in AVENGING FORCE and later appeared with him in AMERICAN NINJA 4: THE ANNIHILATION.

In Booth's honor, I watched another of his late-career films tonight. DEEP SPACE is an Earth-set ALIEN ripoff, shot in seven weeks on an alleged budget of $1.5 million by director Fred Olen Ray. Ray had just made THE TOMB for Trans World Entertainment, and eagerly jumped right back in bed with them for DEEP SPACE.

Booth's role is a small one, and was probably performed in a single day. As sinister government scientist Forsythe, he's responsible for a spaceship containing a slimy monster and its two eggs that crashes near Los Angeles. The toothy Charles Napier plays a typically unorthodox movie detective assigned by by-the-book boss Bo Svenson (Buford Pusser in the WALKING TALL sequels) to investigate the bloody murders of a pair of teenagers. Napier and partner Ron Glass (BARNEY MILLER) encounter interference from the U.S. government, while Napier simultaneously receives mysterious phone calls from psychic Julie Newmar (Catwoman!) and quality sack time with sexy policewoman Ann Turkel (HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP). The killings are being perpetrated by a trio of slimy monsters with tentacles and big teeth that were developed by the Defense Department to use against our enemies, but are now on the loose in Los Angeles

None of this is very original, but it's all done with good humor. Ray tosses in enough tongue-in-cheek action (Napier serenades his date by playing bagpipes!), gore and recognizable character actors like Anthony Eisley (JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF TIME) and Michael Forest (BEAST FROM HAUNTED CAVE) to make DEEP SPACE an OK time-passer. The screenplay by Ray and T.L. Lankford could have used a few new twists; Newmar's role seems to have only been added because the writers couldn't figure out any other way to wrap up the plot.

It's cool to see Napier play the lead for once. He tosses off some one-liners ("I'm gonna kick some monster ass!"), gets all gored up while whaling his opponent with a chainsaw, and even gets to make out with Ann Turkel.

Posted by Marty at 11:20 PM CDT
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Sunday, August 21, 2005
Unknown Subject
Now Playing: UNSUB
It's almost a cliche to say that something was "ahead of its time", but I think it's actually true of UNSUB, an NBC crime drama that aired only eight times before its quick cancellation in the spring of 1989. The best way to describe UNSUB quickly is that it was C.S.I. meets MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE with more humor. If this show had debuted a couple of seasons ago, it would fit it nicely with the networks' steady stream of plot-oriented cop shows that focus on bloody crime scenes and up-to-date technology over characterization.

Stephen J. Cannell was the executive producer of UNSUB, which is a bit of a surprise, considering it's not very much like a typical Cannell series. His biggest hits, like THE A-TEAM, THE ROCKFORD FILES and THE GREATEST AMERICAN HERO, were nearly as much comedy as drama and relied on a talented light cast to yuk its way through fluffy plots. UNSUB was quite different, a dark police procedural about a special branch of the Justice Department that jetted all over the United States investigating serial killings. Michael Mann's film MANHUNTER was clearly a major inspiration for the series. I think MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE may have been too, since a typical episode opens with the characters, each of whom a specialist in some arcane crime-fighting procedure, sitting around the table being briefed by their boss before traveling cross-country to start the case.

David Soul, who spent much of the 1980's on NBC starring in CASABLANCA, THE YELLOW ROSE and IN THE LINE OF DUTY: THE F.B.I. MURDERS, starred as John Westley Grayson, "Westy" to his friends. Like C.S.I.'s William Petersen, Soul was an experienced actor (best known as one-half of STARSKY & HUTCH) with enough gravitas to believably head up an elite crimefighting unit. Other cast members included Kent McCord, another longtime TV star from ADAM-12, as a forensics expert who was a whiz with a microscope; the great character actor M. Emmet Walsh as the crusty, old-school ex-cop; Joe Maruzzo as the profiler; Jennifer Hetrick as the psychologist; and Richard Kind, later a familiar face from SPIN CITY.

Like C.S.I., which premiered over a decade later, UNSUB focused on bizarre killers with deep psychological problems. But unlike the more recent program, UNSUB stuck to just one case per episode and did a better job of letting its actors breathe, finding a scene or two occasionally to allow them to develop their characters, unlike the all-work caricatures in Petersen's troop.

Their best episode was a two-parter titled "And the Dead Shall Rise to Condemn Thee", which found the UNSUB cast investigating the disappearance of two young black women who were last seen in the company of a charismatic black preacher, played by the late Jason Bernard, one of those actors you immediately recognize from dozens of films and TV shows. Soul's Westy, the son of a fire-and-brimstone preacher, had to confront his own rough childhood and religious guilt in his quest to prove Bernard's guilt in two murders.

An earlier episode, "Clean Slate", guest-starred a young Kevin Spacey in a dual role: an obsessive-complusive bomber and his twin brother, dying of cancer. An accidental bonus for C.S.I. fans is a guest shot in the first episode by Paul Guilfoyle, who plays Captain Brass on the CBS series, as a mother-dominated killer.

Since only eight episodes appear to have been filmed, UNSUB was never syndicated and is unlikely to be released on DVD. I believe Cannell owns the rights to UNSUB, so the ball is in his court. I suppose if there's an audience for DVD box sets of THE COMMISH and SILK STALKINGS, there might be one for UNSUB, the original Crime Scene Investigators.

Posted by Marty at 10:19 PM CDT
Updated: Monday, August 22, 2005 7:58 AM CDT
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